Well, at the most basic level, the peasants who made up the majority of the population in medieval times, women played a vital role. In 'Life in a Medieval Village' Frances and Joseph Gies write:
'For most of the time, in most households, the work of men and women were differentiated along the traditional lines of "outside" and "inside" work. The woman's "inside" jobs were by no means always performed indoors. Besides spinning, weaving, sewing, cheese-making, cooking and cleaning, women did foraging, gardening, weeding, haymaking, carrying and animal-tending. They joined in the lord's harvest boon unless excused, and helped bring in the family's own harvest. often women served as paid labor, receiving at least some of the time wages equal to men's.
For many village women one of the most important parts of the daily labor was the care of livestock. Poultry was virtually the woman's domain, but feeding, milking, washing, and shearing the larger livestock often fell to her also.'
Women also brewed the ale that all but the very poorest drank rather than water. Frances and Joseph Gies write:
'Every village not only had its brewers, but had them all up and down the street. Many if not most of them were craftswomen. The procedure was to make a batch of ale, display a sign, and turn one's house into a temporary tavern. Some equipment was needed, principally a large cauldron, but that did not 0prevent poor women from brewing.'
Women in towns were often involved in business. In 'Life in a Medieval City' Frances and Joseph Gies write:
'Women work outside the home at an astonishing variety of crafts and professions. They may be teachers, midwives, laundresses, lace-makers, seamstresses, and even members of normally male trades and professions - weavers, fullers, barbers, carpenters, saddlers, tilers, and many others. Wives commonly work at their husbands' crafts, and when a man dies his widow carries on his trade. Daughters not infrequently learn their father's craft along with their brothers. In the countryside girls hire themselves out as farm workers. The lady of the manor takes charge of the estate while huer husband is off to war, crusade, or pilgrimage, and wives run businesses while their husbands are away.'
The wife of an upper class man left to manage an estate in her husband's absence might even have to go off to war. In her book 'Treasure of the City of Ladies (1399) Christine de Pisan describes how a lady might have to cope:
'We have also said that she ought to have the heart of a man, that is, she ought to know how to use weapons and be familiar with everything that pertains to them, so that she may be ready to command her men if the need arises. She should know how to launch an attack or to defend against one, if the situation calls for it. She should take care that her fortresses are well garrisoned. She should consider what manpower she has and can call on with confidence if the situation warrants it, and for which she will not have to wait in vain nor accept any promises.'
Queens and noble ladies were expected to be patrons of learning, to take an interest in charities, and to give generously to the poor. Many Queens founded monasteries, almshouses, colleges, hospitals etc. Queen Matilda, wife of King Henry I of england, founded the first public bath houses and lavatories in London, for example. Queens might be expected to act as regents while their husbands were away, and would be expected to take an active role in government in this situation. They might also act as regent for a son too young to take the throne, as Blanche of Castille did for Louis IX for example.
Some women were rulers in their own right, like Matilda of Tuscany for example, who ruled over a large portion of Italy in the 12th century, and who supported the Pope in his quarrel with the Holy roman Emperor. Matilda led her own armies into battle. The most famous female military leader of th emiddle ages of course was the remarkable Joan of Arc, whose success in leading the French army at the Siege of Orleans was the beginning of the end of the Hundred Years War.
Some women became nuns, and some nuns attained a high degree of learning, like Hildegarde of Bingen for example, who wrote on natural history, medicine, philosophy and who composed music, which is still played in churches today. Some nuns were politically influential, like Catherine of Sienna for example, who gave advice to popes.
There were some secular woman writers in the middle ages as well, like Marie de France, whose poems on Arthurian themes were very popular, and Christine de Pisan, who was the first European woman known to have made a living as a professional woman writer.
Answered By: Louise C - 4/29/2011